When I was first teaching, I was regularly asked “Are we having a fun lesson today, Miss?” as my pupils walked into my classroom.
Invariably, a ‘fun’ lesson actually meant “Do we get to play on the computers today?” or “Are we going to watch a film?”.
I don’t get asked that question anymore and, while at 4’11” I am an imposing presence, I think it’s because most of my pupils no longer feel the need to ask. We don’t play games on computers and, while we watch videos, they are rarely more than five minutes long.
However, my classroom philosophy has changed. I believe that enjoyment and ‘fun’ come down to success; pupils liked films and games on the computers because they were low-risk activities where they did not need to worry about being unsuccessful.
Students now happily complete much more challenging activities in my classroom because they know there is a high chance of success. Success is satisfying. Satisfaction is one of the roots of fun.
One of the main tools I use to achieve this success is knowledge organisers; documents containing the core content for each unit.
In my eyes, a knowledge organiser is the ultimate tool of inclusion; through a well-written knowledge organiser every child, regardless of their socio-economic status, their attendance, or their previous education, can have access to the core knowledge they need to be successful.
Of course, knowledge organisers will never replace an expert at the front of the room, but they are an excellent tool for establishing the foundations needed to be successful.
However, this impact depends on knowledge organisers being well-written - and this is no easy task. I am now on my fourth year of writing them in some shape or form, and I have developed a method which I believe ensures that knowledge organisers are effective. This six-step method is based on three principles: knowledge organisers should be focused, sequential and accessible.
1 | Define the schema
I usually write knowledge organisers at the same time as writing a scheme of work. In order to decide exactly what I’m going to include in my knowledge organiser, I need to know exactly where my scheme of work is going.
Mapping out the core knowledge and concepts also allows me to consider any connections with previous units or links between sub-topics.
This is arguably the most dangerous stage of writing knowledge organisers; as subject specialists, it is often tempting to get carried away and to include interesting titbits and hooks, rather than what is required.
However, the aim of knowledge organisers is to ensure that all pupils have the essential foundational knowledge. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to determine what to leave out, rather than what to include.
2 | Sequence the schema
Consider which foundational concepts pupils will need to cover before they can work onto others. This has the added bonus of essentially planning your lesson sequence at the same time.
3 | Decide on how the information will be presented
One of the core principles behind my knowledge organisers is accessibility for all. As a result, I try to present the information within them in the easiest way possible: I use bullet points in my knowledge organisers, trying to stick to a fact per bullet point, I completely avoid paragraphs, and I use tables, diagrams and dual coding wherever possible.
4 | Write and trim the sections
Just as with deciding on the schema for a unit, writing the knowledge organiser is often a deceptively difficult task. Some of my first knowledge organisers were each rushed or lacked a clear schema. As a result, many sections contained vague or superfluous bullet points.
As a result, when pupils wrote quizzes for homework, they often wrote vague and superfluous questions.
Bullet point: “Religion was extremely important in Anglo-Saxon society.”
Q: “What was religion in Anglo-Saxon society?”
We ask pupils to write quizzes about sections of the knowledge organisers. I use the same method to quality assure each section; I write the section, leave for a couple of days, and then return to it and write quiz questions from it. I write one question per bullet point. The quality of the quiz determines the quality of my writing!
5 | Write the keywords
I have keywords on every page. Originally, I had a specific keywords page or I had a keywords section for every few pages. What I found was that pupils were rarely willing to go hunting for definitions and so, when faced with a word they were unsure of, many chose simply to avoid it.
6 | Administrative steps
It may sound minor, but one of the biggest changes I made to my knowledge organisers when I redrafted them for the first time was adding numbers to each section. I found that asking pupils to write or answer questions about “hard engineering” or “waves” was fraught with confusion or excuses.
By numbering each section, pupils cannot argue that they can’t find the relevant information in the knowledge organiser, and homework can be quickly and easily written into planners.
This method has guided all of my knowledge organisers for this academic year. Over the course of the year, I have noted sections which haven’t worked well and areas which were not clearly explained. There are a number of tweaks I have needed to make for next September.
However, these are tweaks, rather than the complete redrafts of previous years. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve perfection.
However, using this method has dramatically decreased my workload and has resulted in valuable documents which are the linchpin of my curriculum planning.
Writing an effective knowledge organiser: in brief